As readers know (because it’s clear on this site), I welcome requests for topics for this blog. I try to write up the user-requested topics a bit more quickly than items from the list of planned topics I keep for myself, because someone’s waiting and wants to know the answer.
Over the past few months, I’ve had several requests to elaborate on lay and lie, and I haven’t done anything about them. Actually, that’s not entirely true: I’ve deliberately avoided writing about them. For good reason.
As I see the issue, this is about as close as you can get to a perfect losing topic for anyone giving advice about modern language and grammar usage. No matter what answer I give — fully traditional, fully contemporary, or somewhere in between — I’m likely to get beat up over it from some quarter. I’ll be denounced as ignorant; or else uneducated. Wrongheaded; or simply wrong. I see it as a no-win situation, and since it’s a topic I really don’t feel strongly about, my strategy has been avoidance.
However, with those reader requests in the queue — and the gentle prodding from a long-time and dedicated reader — the time has finally come to bite the bullet. Let’s do this thing.
First, some necessary background and clarification. This will be the boring chapter-and-verse stuff, the uncontested technical points about these verbs. Once we’re through that, we’ll move on to what a few leading grammar sources say, and then my opinions.
Obviously, I’m talking only about the verbs lay and lie here, to recline and to place, so all the noun and adjective forms are off the table. This post also isn’t concerned with other verb definitions, such ‘to tell an untruth‘ or ‘to have sexual intercourse with‘ (the first conjugates more simply than the forms discussed here, the second follows the same rules as the other lie covered here).
The OED, by the way, lists 14 main definitions for lay and 7 for lie, so this could go on all day if we tried to be comprehensive and cover everything.
To begin, lets cover a main difference between these two verbs: one is transitive (lay) and the other intransitive (lie). That point comes up in every discussion that makes an effort. But that’s not always followed up. What does this even mean, transitive and intransitive?
In a nutshell, a transitive verb takes (or requires) a direct object. An intransitive verb doesn’t. What’s a direct object, and how do you take it or leave it? A direct object is the thing being acted upon by the subject that’s performing the action. Here are a few quick examples, to demonstrate.
lie: Julia lies in bed with an icepack on her forehead.
(intransitive; Julia reclines; a direct object is not needed)
lay: Ben lays the blanket over her.
(transitive; what does Ben place over her? the blanket is the direct object)
lie: Julia lay there for for some time without speaking.
(intransitive; she reclined there; a direct object isn’t required)
lay: Ben laid the blanket over her.
(transitive; what had Ben placed over her? the blanket is the direct object)
lie: Julia had lain down because she wasn’t feeling well.
(intransitive; she had reclined; there is no direct object)
lay: Ben had laid the blanket over her to make her more comfortable.
(transitive; the blanket is still the direct object)
According to strictly correct usage, intransitive lie doesn’t need a direct object. Julia lies, Julia lay, Julia had lain: short though each clause is, each is complete.
But transitive lay needs the direct object. Ben lays the blanket, Ben laid the blanket, Ben had laid the blanket: without the direct object, each clause is lacking (and also more likely to be confused with lie).
For what it adds to this discussion, the intransitive lie is always active, while transitive lay can be either active or passive. We could say “the blanket was laid by Ben” (passive) just as easily as “Ben laid the blanket” (active). But we couldn’t make the same modification to the phrasing around Julia and lie: “Julia was lain down” (as a result of her own action) is nonsensical in proper English.
Okay, are you confused yet? I hope not, because I’ve really tried my best to make the above as simple as possible and keep it clear and understandable.
What do my go-to grammar sources have to say about lie and lay?
AP gives a very streamlined explanation of the distinctions (to their credit, never even using the words transitive or intransitive), including a few helpful examples of correct and incorrect constructions. Chicago gives the issue a mere six lines, with a brief explanation and another handful of clear examples. Both sources are useful for very quick practical advice, assuming that you already understand the question, and that the usage situation you’re looking up isn’t out on the fringe somewhere.
GMAU, on the other hand, delves deeply, spending over a full page on lay and lie. Before it’s through, some interesting things come to light. The full entry is worth reading, but here are a couple of the most important highlights.
Using lay without a direct object (emphasis mine):
This error is very common in speech–from the illiterate to the highly educated. In fact, some commentators believe that people make this mistake more often than any other in the English language. Others claim that it’s no longer a mistake–or even that it never was.
Misusing lay for lie:
This is one of the most widely known of all usage errors.
GMAU breaks the misuses down into finer categories (lay for lie, laid for past-tense lay, laid for lain, and lain for the past-participle laid) and tellingly grades them all at stage 4 of its language change index (“The form becomes virtually universal but is opposed on cogent grounds by a few linguistic stalwarts”). They note this even for the past-participle laid usage, despite referring to it as “a ghastly example of hypercorrection.”
That’s just shy of universal acceptance (stage 5 on the GMAU language change index). In other words, while the “correct” use of lie and lay will continue to be described in grammar and usage sources for a few more generations, in actual spoken and written use the distinction will most likely be lost well before then. To English speakers born a couple of decades from now, worrying about the distinctions discussed above will seem as pointless as today’s speakers arguing against they as a singular pronoun or complaining about the appropriateness of impact as both a noun and a verb. Those ships have sailed.
Grammarians — as well as actual users of the language — should take note (and the better ones already do): When the majority of users get something “wrong” but don’t consider it to be a problem, then it probably isn’t wrong. It’s instead an indicator that language change is taking place…or already has taken place. That seems to be exactly where we are today with lie and lay.
= = = = =
The above will, I hope, cover just about all questions about the practical use of lay and lie, and if that’s what you needed to know, you can probably stop reading. However, there’s so much out there on this topic, and it’s a thorny one, that if you’re a delver you might be interested in some more. This portion of the post is for you.
Historical. Lay and lie both come originally from the same old Germanic root word (or closely related words), and that probably has a lot to do with the confusion they still generate today. Because of linguistic attributes such as flexional suffixes — which I can only begin to pretend to understand — irregular forms (in modern English) like laid and lain exist and have survived to this day. These varying forms of the verbs would have made much greater sense to a speaker 1000 years ago, when other verbs followed similar patterns. Today they stand out because so few others (none?) still do.
Observation, speculation. I very rarely catch a misuse of lie or lay in print. In fact, I can only think of one which I’ve encountered in the past year (I still remember it because it was so unusual). I think there are a couple of reasons for this, but both are pure speculation. First, I think English speakers simply develop an almost instinctive ear for the difference and they know a wrong use when they hear it, so they’re able to avoid it. There’s no particular logic to which word is chosen, beyond that it ‘sounds right’. Second, I suspect that this has become an error that people fear. They don’t want to risk appearing ignorant by making it, so in a lot of cases they’ll avoid using either word (Ben no longer lays the book down, now he puts it down). Or, they’ll simplify the tense whenever possible to avoid having to worry about the laid and lain forms. This looks to me like an active and popular type of skunking. It also seems like this is more targeted at lay the “to put or place” verb. If true, then lie might continue with its contemporary meaning (perhaps eventually adopting the laid form from lay, which many people already use), while lay for “put or place” becomes archaic and fades out. Stranger things have happened.
Popular culture. Is it wrong if everyone agrees to use it that way? You’re going to lose any argument you start if you insist that “cool” can only mean “somewhat cold,” or that “graphic” only has to do with writing. When it comes to lay and lie, there are two fun and famous examples of incorrect usage: the songs Lay Down Sally by Eric Clapton and Lay Lady Lay by Bob Dylan are both grammatically incorrect according to strict usage. (Grammar Girl, link below, has more to say about them.)
A few online references. In addition to the style guides and dictionaries mentioned above (AP, Chicago, GMAU, OED) these online sources came in handy while I was putting this post together:
- I haven’t sent a link out to Grammar Girl in a while, but she did a nice post on this sometime back.
- Wikiverb is a great site as a reference for conjugating verbs. Lay is here, lie is here. Just about any verb, in just about any language, can be found here.
- Of the many similar explanations online, this one for transitive verbs is one of the simplest and clearest. Their pages for intransitive verbs and for direct objects aren’t bad, either.